“Let’s look at the 50’s....That’s where you’ll see a clear polarization of society...to be an artist was to be an outlaw. It wasn’t a pose or a style. You really were one. Society considered you one. They were ready to put you in jail.” Michael McClure
So Beat poet, historian and charter member of the Rat Bastard Protective Association Michael McClure succinctly characterized the atmosphere of mid-1950s San Francisco when Bruce Conner arrived from Witchita. An artist who shunned publicity but craved the company of other artists, he became the center of a group that included his wife Jean, Wallace Berman, Robert Branaman, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, George Herms, Alvin Light, Michael McClure, Manuel Neri, and Carlos Villa.
Row 1: Jerry Burchard, contact sheet prints, ca. 1958-59. (From left): Wally Hedrick at His Fillmore Street Loft; Stairwell of 2322 Fillmore Street; Jay DeFeo at her Fillmore Street Loft. Row 2: Jerry Burchard, contact sheet prints, ca. 1958-59. (From left): Jay DeFeo in the Kitchen at 2322 Fillmore Street; Wally Hedrick Making Beer at 2322 Fillmore Street; Jay DeFeo Gazing out the Window of Her Fillmore Street Loft.
Conner coined “Rat Bastard” by combining the name of a San Francisco trash collection company, the Scavengers Protective Association, with a slur picked up at the gym. He and Jean took a lease on a rambling wood-frame apartment building at 2322 Fillmore Street that was dubbed Painterland, and hosted a close-knit group of painters, poets, and musicians who paid around $65 rent per month. Here, they created experimental art often cobbled together from detritus picked off the streets during midnight runs. Through montage, assemblage, and combined techniques, they created spontaneous work that was alive—and confounding for many who had never been exposed to art beyond the prevailing mainstream of Abstract Expressionism.
To formalize the group, Conner made what he called the “approved seal of the Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a rubber stamp designed to be used by members to sign their artworks and anything else they deemed worthy of their approval.
Like so much of Conner’s works, the rubber stamp was multivalent: it signaled belonging, it commodified, it spoke of hubris, and it was funny. Most of all, though, the stamp was designed to unify a group of artists who felt alienated from the mainstream and deprived of institutional acceptance (if only because few knew about them).
Right: Jerry Burchard, Jay DeFeo withThe Jewel and Ladder, c. 1958-60. Courtesy of the Landing, Los Angeles.
Conner, the subject of a major retrospective Bruce Conner: It’s All True at MoMA and SFMOMA, has been recently named one of the most important postwar American artists, thanks in large part to the book, Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association (University of California Press 2016) by Dr. Anastasia Aukeman. Info
Above: Bekins Moving & Storage workers removeThe Rosefrom Jay DeFeo’s home and studio at 2322 Fillmore Street, November 9, 1965. Courtesy of the Jay DeFeo Foundation, Berkeley.
The book, which presents an insightful account of these artists and their circle, a colorful cultural milieu that intersected with the broader Beat scene, comes to life through new and little-known material Aukeman uncovered during archival research and conversations with members of the group, including Conner’s wife, Jean, also an artist.
Now the Rat Bastards are the subject of an exhibition curated by Aukeman, opening tomorrow at Susan Inglett Gallery, in Chelsea. Including gallery ephemera, photographs, and more than 40 works by 10 artists, the exhibition demonstrates the practices of these artists whose inflammatory work helped to establish the Bay Area as an artistic and intellectual hub that animated broader social and artistic discussions for decades to come.